Aliens. Lasers. Warp drives. Spaceships. Battles with lots of people named "commander" or "ensign."
These are just a few of the things that probably come to your mind when someone mentions "science fiction." And you wouldn't be wrong—in most examples of the genre, those things exist in spades. Even if a show doesn't revolve around massive space battles, there are at least a few futuristic weapons to be seen, robots to be used (or fought), and planets to be explored.
But science fiction can also be a conduit to ask serious questions about faith, religion, purpose, destiny, and what, exactly, it means to be human. They're questions not usually possible to ask in other genres—at least, not as easily. The setting, scope, and plot of most science fiction makes it possible to explore themes that have puzzled humans since the beginning of time—including themes that crop up, again and again, in the Bible.
The Deeper Side of Sci-Fi
Perhaps the most obvious way science fiction portrays spirituality is in the examination of the human spirit under difficult, even alien (pun fully intended) situations. Like no other genre, science fiction can ably and quickly ask deep, probing questions, such as, "What does decency look like in the midst of insurmountable odds and threats to human existence?"
Even the silliest, most vapid science fiction seems to hinge on how loving humanity can be in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. The transformers films are generally not very good, but they still rely on the fact that the heroes sacrifice for one another, help one another, and act out a near-biblical love for each other. Independence day is practically the definition of "popcorn flick," but it features a father willing to die out of love for his children, along with a President willing to die for people all over the world. And knowing wouldn't ever win any awards for its ludicrous story, but it's still about sacrificial love. In fact, almost every disaster film (be it via attack by aliens, meteor, or a mish-mash of natural causes) forces its characters into choices about what kinds of people they will be. In almost all of them, the honorable characters choose to sacrifice and protect their loved ones out of selflessness, a deeply 1 Corinthians 13-type love.
But the best science fiction asks even deeper questions. Consider a show like lost (or, to a lesser extent, its spiritual successor fringe). Over its six sometimes infuriating seasons, it managed to cover time travel, dualistic mythology, and the afterlife. But at its core was a question of belief: Was it better to rely on faith or reason? The two sides were represented by John Locke, the ultimate faithful one, and Jack Shepard, the ultimate man of rationality. In the end, neither man is completely proven right [spoilers ahead]. Locke's passionate faith takes him past empathy and compassion and ultimately leads to his murder, and Shepard's rationality costs him everything until he truly believes.
Both of these characters represent extremes that Jesus calls Christians away from in the Gospels. Jesus obviously shows deep faith—so much faith that he willingly goes to his death even though he doesn't want to. But he also perfectly lived out a life that married deep compassion (as when he healed the blind man in John 9) with deep conviction (as when he rebuked Peter for his lack of faith in Mark 8). Shows like lost encourage a stance of a compassionate faith that goes beyond raw reason, but also doesn't succumb to a lack of empathy for broken people. It's a show that strongly suggests there's something beyond what we can understand through rationalism.
One of the biggest questions ever asked by science fiction can be found in battlestar galactica, the critically acclaimed TV "reimagining" that aired from 2004-2009. The show is about humanity battling for survival against the Cylons, a race of robots created by humans. The show's first few episodes take place against the backdrop of [spoilers ahead] a sneak attack by the Cylons, who kill all but around 50,000 humans. The question is then asked by the humans who escape: "Why does humanity deserve to live?" It's that question that lingers over the entire series, because most of the human actions seem to suggest the answer might be "we don't." The humans are petty, vengeful, and sinful. And yet, the show also suggests there's something there that's deeper. It's a reminder that all of us are capable of good, but we're also capable of great evil—evil that necessitates an undeserved grace if any of us is to have any hope. The entire show's run reminds us we don't really deserve saving—instead, God can and does use broken people to accomplish his purposes and to do greater good than we could ever dream of.
Religion in Science Fiction
Deep questions are not the only tie to spirituality within science fiction. Many of the best examples of sci-fi also have a lot of religious commentary or imagery. Some of it can be really overt—think about Neo dying at the end of the matrix revolutions (in a cross of light, no less!) with the promise of resurrection, or when Captain Kirk goes to find God in star trek v: the final frontier (spoiler: he doesn't find him).
But some of the best science fiction also has a character trying to make sense of what Christian faith looks like in an often brutal universe. Derrial Book, a character in firefly (Joss Whedon's criminally underrated sci-fi/cowboy mashup) is a pastor (known in the firefly universe as a "shepherd") trying to provide the light of God in a very dark place to some occasionally hopeless people. He's a devout man, but he also has a dark past—his own redemption makes him passionate about seeking the redemption of others. Or consider Nightcrawler (played by Alan Cumming) in x-men 2, who spends much of the film trying to reconcile his deep faith with his mutant powers. These characters are examples to viewers of people trying to understand how Christian faith can continue to make sense of the world, even when the world has fallen apart. When Christian faith is authentically treated in science fiction, it can remind believers that faith can provide hope and meaning even in the darkest of times.
Other science fiction doesn't have exact representations of Christian faith, but can still teach Christians plenty about spirituality. The most famous example is from the Star Wars series, which presents the mysterious Force. The Force seems to be a mish-mash of Buddhist, Christian, and New Age ideas, but it's also at the center of the epic struggle between good and evil. It's an example of the power of faith and sacrificial love winning out over evil and technological might—in the star wars universe, a blaster and skepticism can only get you so far. You need faith to truly succeed.
Star trek also featured plenty of religious analogy, usually pointing out some of the flaws in religious systems that sought to control and radicalize their adherents. But the nature of the science fiction universe in star trek allowed it to explore topics like that without seeming heavy-handed or even unfair to religion—after all, most Christians likely have at least one example of a person who, however well meaning, turned the gospel into a controlling system of legalism.
Battlestar galactica had competing mythologies, some of which seem to be true and some of which seem to be false. But again, it was the people who were open to faith who ended up being the ones who could believe in a bigger purpose than their own goals. The list can go on and on—where there's science fiction, there's likely a robust mythology or spirituality that has a lot to teach Christians. Other examples, like stargate: universe, star trek: the next generation, signs, and minority report all explore deep themes of faith, belief, and destiny.
Science fiction might seem like it only has appeal for people who want to escape or watch big space battles. But underneath all the technology and weird costumes often lies a deeper, much more spiritual meaning. Science fiction, perhaps more than any other genre of pop culture, can be used to explore deep questions of identity, humanity, and faith. It has much to teach us about belief and love, even if it happens to take place in a galaxy far, far away.
Ryan Hamm is a writer living in Orlando, FL, where he lives with his wife, spends as much time at Disney World as you would expect, and is at work on his first book. You can find him on Twitter @ryanechamm.
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